- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 31, 2004

BATON ROUGE, La. — Seafood-stuffed eggplant is not a dish you come home from work at 6 p.m. and start making for dinner, unless you like to eat at midnight. Stuffing an eggplant is a weekend cooking project.

My husband says that if someone serves you a stuffed eggplant, they must really like you. I couldn’t agree more. Hollowing out an eggplant, chopping and cooking all the ingredients for the filling, and then stuffing the eggplant halves and baking them is a lot of work.

That said, don’t skip preparing this wonderful entree while eggplants are in season.

Aside from the compliments you’ll get from guests who will enjoy eating this earthy vegetable-seafood casserole, you’ll probably learn more about eggplants than you ever thought you would want to know.

Eggplants are complicated. First, although commonly thought of as a vegetable, it is actually a fruit and a member of the nightshade family. This makes it a distant relative of the potato and tomato.

Some eggplants are light for their size; others are heavy. You can slice one open and find it full of seeds, or you may find few or no seeds present.

I have read that cooks should be careful to purchase only male eggplants to avoid the seeds — but I doubt most cooks can remember how to identify the gender of an eggplant when they are looking at a tray of them in the produce section.

If you happen to be a cook with an encyclopedic memory, according Tony Tantillo and Sam Gugino’s “Eat Fresh, Stay Healthy: An A-to-Z Guide to Buying and Cooking Fruits and Vegetables,” “the gender of the eggplant can be determined by the blossom end, the one opposite the stem.

The distaff side has an oval scar or indentation at that end. The male a round scar. Another theory says that the female eggplant has a sheen on the outside and that the male has a dull appearance.”

The presence or absence of seeds influences the bitterness of the eggplant, or so the theory goes, the “Eat Fresh” guide says. However, the guide concludes that the male-female, seeds-no-seeds theory may be baloney. What really matters is age.

“Younger eggplant is usually not bitter,” the guide’s authors explain.

Or again, maybe it’s freshness.

Alice Waters, chef-owner of Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., says the key to nonbitter eggplant is freshness. She suggests buying an eggplant that is not too large and is shiny on the outside with taut, deep-colored skin. The flesh should spring back when pressed.

The “Eat Fresh, Stay Healthy” guide notes that dull skin and rust-colored spots are signs of age. The inside of the eggplant should be white with few seeds and no green. Green indicates an immature eggplant.

So what happens if you buy an eggplant, slice it open and it looks as if there are a good number of seeds inside? To remove as much bitter taste as possible from the flesh, salt lightly and let sit for 20 to 30 minutes.

Rinse and drain when ready to cook. The salt will leach out some of the bitterness, or it may simply change the taste of the eggplant so you don’t detect the bitterness.

Eggplants should be refrigerated after purchasing.

Store in the refrigerator vegetable drawer or in a plastic bag to retain moisture. An eggplant will stay fresh in the refrigerator for about five days.

Selecting the eggplant is important when making a stuffed-eggplant recipe, but the cook also needs to consider what breading to use in combination with the chopped vegetables for the stuffing.

If you like a dense, dressinglike stuffing, go with bread crumbs. If you prefer a fluffier, softer stuffing, use cubed French bread.

Spices and herbs should be stirred in according to taste, but it is important to not oversalt the mixture. Eggplant soaks up seasoning, so if you add too much salt, you can really taste it. If you use salted butter to saute the vegetables, consider omitting any additional salt.

As to which seafood to use in combination with the eggplant mixture: Most cooks prefer shrimp or crawfish. You can stir in crabmeat, too, but, quite honestly, the eggplant and breading overpower the crab.

Why waste your money and good crabmeat? Save the crab for a more delicate dish. However, I have included a recipe that uses crabmeat. It’s your decision.

Shrimp-stuffed eggplant

This a grand dish. You’ll be glad you went to the trouble of preparing it. The recipe is from “Too Good to Be True” by Chet Beckwith.

1 medium eggplant, halved and scooped out

½ stick butter

6 green onions, tops and bottoms, thinly sliced

1 small white onion, chopped

½ green bell pepper, diced fine

3 garlic cloves, chopped

3 ribs celery, chopped

10 sprigs parsley, snipped

½ pound raw shrimp, peeled, cleaned

1/4 teaspoon each red, white and black peppers

1/4 tablespoon salt, optional or to taste

1/3 teaspoon dried basil

1/3 teaspoon dried thyme

1/8 teaspoon crumbled oregano

3 shakes Worcestershire Sauce

6 pieces French bread, torn into small pieces

Parmesan cheese

Pat of butter

Cut eggplant in half; scoop out pulp, leaving shells intact for stuffing. Cut pulp in small chunks. Soak pulp in salted water for 15 to 20 minutes, then drain and cook, covered in small amount of water, until tender. Eggplant should absorb all the water, so no further draining should be necessary.

In the meantime, saute vegetables in butter. Then mix sauteed vegetables, shrimp, seasonings and torn French bread. Add to the cooked eggplant. Cook until shrimp turn pink, and then cook a little longer. Mix in Worcestershire sauce and spoon mixture into eggplant shells. Top with Parmesan, dot with butter and bake in 350-degree oven for 30 minutes or until bubbly. Makes 2 servings.

Tip: This dish is very highly seasoned because it calls for three kinds of peppers. To be safe, you might want to cut down on the pepper, or taste and add as you go.

Testing note: You can easily double this recipe. If you have leftover stuffing, freeze it. We omitted the salt because we used salted butter and felt no additional salt was needed.

Seafood-stuffed eggplant

This recipe is from “Talk About Good.”

2 cups water

1 teaspoon salt

3 medium eggplants

4 tablespoons butter

½ cup diced celery

½ cup chopped green onion

1/4 cup diced bell pepper

½ cup chopped parsley

2 cups cooked rice

1 pound small, peeled shrimp

2 cups crabmeat

½ teaspoon salt

Pepper, to taste

½ teaspoon dried thyme

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

Buttered bread crumbs

Pour water in pan with 1 teaspoon salt. Add eggplant shells you have scooped out; save meat of eggplant, dice and set aside. Let shells come to a boil, then boil only 4 or 5 minutes, drain. Melt butter in frying pan. Add celery, green onion, bell pepper and parsley. Saute until tender. Stir in diced raw eggplant, rice, shrimp, crabmeat, ½ teaspoon salt, pepper, thyme and Worcestershire sauce, and cook for 5 minutes, stirring constantly.

Fill eggplant halves, and bake them in 375 degree-oven about 30 minutes. Buttered bread crumbs may be added to the top of the stuffed eggplant for the last 5 minutes of cooking time. Makes 6 servings.

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